Science and art have long been relegated to the left and right brain respectively: two distinct modes of theory that confound the possibility for coexistence. Pragmatism is pitted against creativity and order contends with unpredictability. Although the technical practice of fine art is often analogous to a scientific one, art is consumed as though it were a ritual guided only by the subconscious. The artist and the scientist aren’t necessarily disparate. Lisa Nilsson‘s quilled paper works are created with a surgeon’s dexterity and focus. The artist unravels her process of constructing and mending bone and organs out of paper.
Installation Magazine: The complexities of human anatomy guide your practice. By manipulating paper, a medium that is as universal as the anatomy that makes up each and every one of us, you reveal the interior mystery of our bodies and create a metaphorical connective tissue between the audience and your work. Aside from your fascination with anatomy, do you feel that your work is guided by science?
Lisa Nilsson: Attention to detail and careful observation are, for me, a means of practicing devotion, a practice common to the scientists and makers of religious art that I admire. I am inspired, aesthetically, by scientific imagery and objects. My approach to my work is “play-scientific.” I use tweezers and scalpels and pretend I’m a surgeon from time to time, but without any of the intense responsibility of the real thing, for which I would be decidedly ill-suited.
Paper is a fragile medium that possesses a meditative quality. The value of paper is in many ways determined by the message that it bears.
The early quilled reliquaries that I admire were made by nuns who did not have access to more expensive materials, but who could imbue inexpensive materials with a lavish value through their devotion of time and careful, detailed art making. I employ gilt paper to depict the bones and go to some lengths to make enclosures for the finished works that create a reverential and precious atmosphere.
What message do you hope to communicate? How should the audience read your work?
I like my finished works to hover somewhere in between a reliquary and a scientific specimen.
Which artists have influenced your practice?
I was most inspired by the work of Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg. I find now that I am inspired equally by religious art objects (mainly reliquaries that typically contain anatomical specimens- finger bones of saints, etc.) and by scientific objects (mainly anatomical models and specimens.)
Devotion is a central theme in your work, whether it alludes to the history of paper quilling or the commitment that you have made to the material. How did you determine that paper quilling was the appropriate technique to achieve your vision?
I enjoy the humble material quality of paper. The fragility of the paper I use and the intricacy of the technique of quilling are ideally suited for representing anatomy. I encountered a quilled piece of religious art in a junk antique store. I was inspired by this piece, and shortly I included a few small, abstract quilled pieces in assemblage. I enjoyed the way I could make small coiled units out of strips of paper and then enclose and encircle them with an additional strip and then squish and shape this new composite shape. Also, I could create a “cavity” and squeeze coils into it until it was full.
Do you ever use scientific journals as a reference?
A friend sent me a link to an image of a hand-colored photograph of a coronal section of a torso from an old French anatomy text. I saw the shapes and textures I was experimenting with in my little abstract quilled pieces in this image and it became the point of departure for my first anatomical cross-section in paper. I had intended to include it in an assemblage, but the scale was too big and it wanted to be a stand-alone. I began researching more images of cross-sections and the work has evolved from there.
Walk me through the process of quilling paper. The effect is extraordinary and imagine it is rather time consuming. Approximately how long did it take to construct the series?
I start with a paper print-out of my source image (sometimes a composite of several images, sometimes just one) and thumb tack it to a piece of styrofoam insulation as a backing board. I cut 1/4 strips of Japanese mulberry paper with a paper cutter. I typically start in some central location, often a bone, and make coils by winding the paper strips around pins or needles or drill bits and then pinch them into the desired shape. I glue shapes onto shapes, attaching each to its neighbor and pin them in place along the periphery of the pieces. It grows much in the way a puzzle comes together. When the thrilling moment arrives and the final piece is in place, I remove the pins and turn the entire piece over (it has a tendency to spread a bit– scary!.) I re-pin the outer edge to re-establish the overall shape I desire, then I brush the entire back of the piece with PVA (book binder’s glue.) The piece now has enough rigidity to be gingerly moved about. I then spend a few days making a box-enclosure for the piece.
What should our readers be on the lookout for in regards to future projects?
I am currently working on a coronal section of a male figure that starts at the top of the head and ends at about mid-thigh. I’ll be having a show that opens on October 10, 2013 at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York City.
All images © of the artist